Sunday, 15 April 2012

Why does Power Corrupt?

Katczinsky's character in All Quiet on the Western Front comments about the effects of power on men in the army
"but the root of the matter lies elsewhere. For instance, if you train a dog to eat potatoes and then afterwards put a piece of meat in front of him, he'll snap at it, it's his nature. And if you give a man a little bit of authority he behaves just the same way, he snaps at it too. The things are precisely the same. In himself man is essentially a beast, only he butters it over like a slice of bread with a little decorum. The army is based on that; one man must always have power over the other. The mischief is merely that each one has much too much power."
By why is this generally true?

We like to think that mankind is basically good. But this observation of human nature strikes at the very heart of this notion. If man was basically good then power wouldn't corrupt: it would embellish generosity, provide the means for great benevolence, it would produce love not dread.

Instead I think that man is full of self love. We (I included) crave the adulation of others and that they would do our bidding. We want to be great. So when a person receives power they enjoy it and they wish to prove to themselves that they have it. But how can one do this? By showing that no one can prevent you doing what you want.

So let's pretend that you've been granted absolute power. You begin with reasonable requests. This gives a buzz for a bit – but aren't people just obeying you because what you're asking makes sense? So then come the unreasonable orders – and what a high. People abjectly humiliating themselves to please your every whim. Yes, truly none can prevent your will.

But then the nagging doubts. You can't really do anything, there are moral taboos; don't they represent the rules of some higher power?
Next the subtle whispering begins.
Why should you obey some ancient moral scruples? Who's to say you can't do these things?
Then your conscience fights back screaming – “It's wrong!”
The silky voice replies “Says who? You decide what's right and wrong.”
“God says” your conscience answers.
“Does he really?” scoffs the voice, “Like He'd strike you down?”
“Yes, you'll have to answer,” your conscience musters.
“No you won't. You're the highest power,” the voice encourages. “Now prove it. Violate these superstitions. Show the world you're just like God.”

So that's my theory. When people are given power they need to demonstrate  to themselves that they truly have it. The ultimate way to accomplish this is to do something that you know to be morally wrong - even reprehensible – and show that nothing can stop you. To prove that you are answerable to no one. This is our great desire that power unveils: to be like God.

So the fact that power corrupts people is evidence that man is fallen. That the Bible's view of man fits with reality. That we are not naturally good, but rather, selfish, consumed with ourselves and rebels against God. We have all followed after the lie of the serpent in the garden.
“No! You will not die,” the serpent said to the woman.  “In fact, God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  Genesis 3:4-5.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Science versus History

I've met a number of atheists over the years who claim they only believe what can be shown to be true by science. The evidence must be peer reviewed. They discount all other evidence. When challenged by the historical evidence for Jesus being better than that of Tiberius Caesar they declare that history is untrustworthy so they don't believe in Jesus and they don't believe in Caesar.

This position is obviously extreme and it represents only a tiny minority of atheists but it does reflect our current cultlure: Science is Top Dog. Science is the best way of determining the truth. Science trumps history.

But I think that this just isn't so. I think Science = History.

Let me explain.

How does science work?

In an ideal world:
Science is based on observations. To explain those observations someone creates a hypothesis. Experiments are then devised that can falsify the hypothesis. If the hypothesis is not falsified then increasing trust is placed in that explanation for the data until we might say we have a scientific theory e.g. of gravity.

Now the essence of good science is that the experiments are repeatable; someone else can repeat the experiment and get the same results. You can go check it for yourself.

So far so good. I can believe the theory is true because I can go out and test it. But here's the catch.

Do you test it?

For gravity I do. I'm always dropping stuff and it always falls to the ground with a reassuring clatter.
But what about theories of particle physics? Cosmology? Evolution?

I bet you don't.

So how do you know it to be true?


It's been peer reviewed. Great. This means that some other group of scientists have repeated the experiments and found the result to be true. This might be true. But experiments are costly, require specialist equipment and large amounts of time and money. And some data – like a long running climate study - can never be repeated. So what's more likely is that they checked that the methodology sounded reasonable and that they too took the results on trust. And unless someone needs to replicate the results for their own work any fraud or error is unlikely to be discovered.

But surely a scientist wouldn't commit fraud would they? They're committed to the pursuit of truth...


fame, research funding, getting published, promotion, job security, a pet theory, minimizing effort etc. ...

They're human. And if you not quite sure that's possible then read this and this.

So ultimately when we trust a peer review article we trust that the scientists who wrote and reviewed are reliable. That they are reliable eyewitnesses of the experiments they record. And on the whole that's a reasonable assumption to make.

So that's the first catch – or rather similarity with history. With history we have to trust that ancient writers are accurately reporting the events of their day. But this isn't done naively – the bias of the writer is considered and their purpose for writing is assessed. And when events they describe can be corroborated from other sources  greater confidence is placed in their accounts. On the whole we can decide if a source is a reliable account of an event.

Which leads us to catch number two.

Observations require interpretation. Just as an historian examines the data and forms a theory as to why an event happened, the scientist's hypothesis is ultimately an interpretation of the known observations. And more than one interpretation can fit the known data. So which interpretation are you going to choose? For the individual scientist that depends on what they've been taught, the theories they have emotionally invested in and what's currently fashionable (i.e. the ruling paradigm). None of which may be true. In other words scientist are biased – just like other people. But it doesn't stop there. The scientists who peer review your work are also biased and if they don't like your interpretation – even though it explains all the known observations – your work may never get published. And if you're not sure of that, here are three examples where  publishing against the paradigm is unlikely to suceed : climate change, evolution and the big bang.

Thus I think science and history are similar methods of knowing: both require trusting a source of observations and weighing up the explanatory power of any proposed interpretation.  Ultimately, a scientific paper is an historical record of observations along with an interpretation. Science is not the be all and end all of knowledge as many think. It's not a statement of ultimate truth.

 Science doesn't trump history.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

The Word on a Mountain

We all know the story of the Transfiguration. Jesus goes up a Mountain with Peter, James and John and there He begins to shine like the sun. Moses and Elijah appear. Then God speaks from a bright cloud declaring “This is my Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.”

This is the greatest revelation of who Jesus is the Gospel. From here we descend to to Jerusalem for the beloved Son to die in our place. Rejected. Forsaken. For us.

But why do Moses and Elijah  appear?

The traditional interpretation is that they represent the Law and the Prophets who all point to the Messiah. The transfiguration demonstrates that Jesus is far greater than the Law and the Prophets. He is the Messiah we are to heed. However I think there is even more going on here. What do Moses and Elijah have in common? They both had God reveal Himself to them on mountains. So lets have a closer look at those passages.
Moses First. (Exodus 34)

4 Moses cut two stone tablets like the first ones. He got up early in the morning, and taking the two stone tablets in his hand, he climbed Mount Sinai, just as the LORD had commanded him.
 5 The LORD came down in a cloud, stood with him there, and proclaimed His name Yahweh. 6 Then the LORD passed in front of him and proclaimed:
   Yahweh—Yahweh is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in faithful love and truth, 7 maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving wrongdoing, rebellion, and sin. But He will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ wrongdoing on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.
 8 Moses immediately bowed down to the ground and worshiped.

Now Elijah. (1 Kings 19)

So he got up, ate, and drank. Then on the strength from that food, he walked 40 days and 40 nights to Horeb, the mountain of God. 9 He entered a cave there and spent the night.
    Then the word of the LORD came to him, and He said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
 10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God of Hosts, but the Israelites have abandoned Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are looking for me to take my life.”
 11 Then He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the LORD’s presence.
   At that moment, the LORD passed by. A great and mighty wind was tearing at the mountains and was shattering cliffs before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake there was a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire there was a voice, a soft whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
   Suddenly, a voice came to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

So who is it standing with Moses and Elijah on the mountain top? Who do they speak to face to face with when they can't see the LORD and live? It's the LORD! It's the Word of God. Moses and Elijah are not alone on the Mountain top. The Word of God is with them showing them God.

So back to the transfiguration. Moses and Elijah are standing there again on a Mountain as the Glory of the Lord passes by. And once again they're not alone. Someone is standing there with them.

Jesus isn't just being declared to be God's Son. He's demonstrating that He is the Word of God on a Mountain. He reveals the Father to us!

John 1:14-14
14 The Word became flesh
and took up residence among us.
We observed His glory,
the glory as the One and Only Son from the Father,
full of grace and truth.

15 (John testified concerning Him and exclaimed,
“This was the One of whom I said,
‘The One coming after me has surpassed me,
because He existed before me.’”)
16 Indeed, we have all received grace after grace
from His fullness,
17 for the law was given through Moses,
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
18 No one has ever seen God.
The One and Only Son—
the One who is at the Father’s side—
He has revealed Him.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Quotes from the Office

It's been a while since I last blogged. 

Since then, I've submitted the final copy of my thesis, moved to live in a new city and have started my new job. God has been good in providing for all those things. But it hasn't left me much time for blogging. So in lieu of a serious post, here are some quotes from my time as a mathematics PhD student. Comments from postgrads are denoted by a P and those by lecturers with an L to protect the... ahem... guilty?

P: I hate mathematicans you know.

L: Maths is the best way to learn how stupid you are.

L: Seminars are a great place to have a quiet think.

P: I do the lottery because I'm supposed to be rich.

P (female): I was swapped with Prince William at birth.

P: Does break imply working before and after?
L: It's not a necessary condition.

P: You're growing your hair, aren't you. Radially.

L: It's confusing, just like a good piece of mathematics should be.

P: I don't read the news. I read facebook.

P: I was in the middle of textin' an' I thought I'd lost my phone.

L: I have a bizarre question. Where do we live?

P: sigh I haven't used a ruler in years!

P: It's not everyday I come to work in my slippers.

P: It's on facebook so it must be true.

P: I'm not a feminist: I'm bolshy.

P: One die, two dice or if it's a really bad day everybody diiiies!

And finally a quote from by an undergraduate on their coursework, to which I can truly relate:
Do not know where to go with this. Not happy with it, but spent way too much time on it, and may throw my computer out the window if I see this on it again!

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

When are You Most Happy?

When are you most happy?  What are occasions when you're most contented?  What do they all have in common?

I might be happy running in the woods, staring at a sunset or listening to choral masterpiece.  Sometimes it might be basking in the glow of some accomplishment: but that doesn't last. There's greater pleasure in performing some task well. Reveling in the mastery of some human faculty.  Or more simply: in making someone else's day.

Mostly I think I'm happiest, when I'm most self forgetful.  When I just enjoy being, without introspection.  When my focus is external to myself.

Is this just me?

What about you?

And what does this tell us about humanity?